William Henry Fox Talbot (English, 1800-1877)
Table set for tea, 1841-1842
Varnished salt print from a calotype negative
8.5 x 16.8 cm mounted on card, ruled
"Patent Talbotype Photogenic Drawing" label on mount verso
Talbot's views of neatly set tables are particularly delightful. They encourage our imagination to picture ourselves sitting down to tea, observing the rituals and customs that would have come with that era and social class, thinking about who would be sitting there and what their conversations might have been. Equally, they encourage the viewer to think about the descriptive powers of photography, as diverse surfaces and textures play with light.
They were powerful and evocative images in the Victorian era as well. Starting in the late 1860s and continuing for some years, the reform-minded writer Eliza Meteyard enthusiastically promoted this particular image as "the first photograph" in talking about Thomas Wedgwood's pioneering attempts at photography. She had known the Wedgwood family since her youth and was not deterred in the least by Wedgwood and Humphry Davy themselves having confessed that they had failed to secure an image in a camera obscura. Some historians sought to clarify the record, and in 1863 Talbot replied to the enquiry by Dr Hugh Welch Diamond:
"In reply to your letter, I beg to inform you that I did make a photograph of china, knives and forks, &C, disposed upon a round table, which is seen very obliquely in the photograph. It was an early attempt, about 1841 or 1842. The view was taken out of doors, on the grassplot in the centre of the cloisters of Lacock Abbey. I have no doubt I have copies of it still left in my collection at Lacock. Wedgwood, in his memoir of 1802 (Journal of the Royal Institution), says that he had thought of the possibility of making photographic views with a camera, but that, on trying the experiment, he had found that no length of time sufficed to produce any visible impression. Therefore, if any ancient photographs should ever be discovered, they will not be his production."
Meteyard's claim remained powerful. The frame for another print of this in the collection of The Royal Photographic Society has a 1920s label, applied when it was on exhibit in the Science Museum, discussing the attribution of the image to Wedgwood.
The present print was probably sold early on by Nicolas Henneman's printing establishment in Reading or may have been sold by him in London. Talbot originally called his new negative process "Calotype Photogenic Drawing" and friends encouraged the substitution of Talbotype to honor the inventor. However, the term photogenic drawing was soon dropped in favor of a simpler one, changing Calotype from an adjective to a noun. The style of the ruled mount derived originally from the plates in The Pencil of Nature and was continued by Henneman for individual prints.